Trigger warnings: self-harm, rape and sexual abuse
originally published on loveinshallah.com
by Sarah Cassim
It was becoming a little routine by now. Every day after work, I would listlessly make the rounds of the kitchen, not daring to cook anything lest my resolve broke and I took a knife to my skin. I would wait for my roommate, who came in half an hour after me. We’d cook dinner together, her unawareness of my inner struggle a relief of its own.
When Ramadan came, the cutting urges gripped me in a vice. Wrecked by hunger and exhaustion on the one hand and battling self harm urges on the other, I came back from work every day and fell into my bed sobbing, terrified of what I would do to myself if I got up. My entire body screamed. It was like a food craving, except my body did not want to nourish itself. Falling headlong into depression, my body only saw self-destruction as a way out.
I fasted day in and out living out an internal terror. My roommates were all non-Muslims. There was really nowhere I could go for spiritual support or guidance.
My rape was a childhood story. Grappling with the trauma was an adulthood truth.
The truth is, our community is afraid of speaking on matters which don’t present us as a perfect organism. Mental Health. Depression. Suicide. Abuse – domestic, sexual, emotional or otherwise. We do this (as has been stated by many Muslim brethren of mine) many times because we don’t want to give “Islamophobes more fodder”. Those who dare to broach these topics often stop at condemnation. Islam does not stand for abuse. Abusers would suffer mightily. End of story.
But, when abuse happens, it is not enough to say Islam and the beloved Prophet would condemn it.
I’ll tell you as a survivor that because my rape was committed by a “religious teacher”, I struggled with my religion. I’ll tell you that I often thought about Hazrat Aisha, youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, who is thought to have consummated her marriage around the same age as I was when my rape happened. I’ll tell you that there were days that I’d sit on my prayer mat, unable to pray.
It is the single biggest reason I stopped coming to Friday congregational prayers. I never knew when I’d be able to pray, and when I wouldn’t be able to, and what reactions I might have to deal with. I searched on Google in vain for Muslim resources that adequately dealt with helping survivors cope in a religious context and came up with almost nothing. At that time, it was like a double whammy of loneliness, grief, and hurt all in one go. I’ll tell you that as I went through this, various commentaries about how Islam does not stand for abuse, for rape, etc., did nothing to help. The statements felt empty.
Coming to terms with trauma is difficult. It is a journey that renders the person fragile, because harmful coping mechanism once employed are now made obsolete. There is constant pain, physical pain, as much as emotional pain as trauma is relived, dealt with, survived. The first part of the journey, where the survivor is constantly reacting to the trauma long after the trauma is over, is called the “crisis stage”, and sometimes is as long as decades.
In my inexpert opinion (I read a lot of psychology, but that doesn’t make me a psychologist), it is probably the stage where the survivor needs the most resources, the most support, the most patience. It is also where I would say that religious institutions and leaders should step in and provide resources and support as needed.
However, most of our clergy are inaccessible, especially to women. Those who are accessible tell us that the ways out of our afflictions are patience, and strengthening our Iman by praying or reading the Quran. I am not denying that spirituality for many is a cornerstone of their healing.
All I am saying is that empty spirituality for many is not enough.
I reasoned with myself for over a week. In Islam, one is allowed to make up fasts later if one is sick, but illness is usually defined in physical terms. Did my depression count? My self-cutting urges? Countless studies prove that hunger often exacerbates depression so I wasn’t making this up. But was I being a bad Muslim by forgoing fasting? Was there a way to be stronger?
In the absence of access to real Imams, I Googled and checked for Certified Muslim Websites. Suffering purifies our humanness, and hunger is suffering. Fasting is used as a way to strengthen my Iman. A single event does not bring on depression or happiness. Depression or happiness is a mindset. I should change my mindset. Develop a stronger Iman.
But I could not change my mindset. My nerves screamed at me.
In the end, I decided that depression counted as a bona fide illness even if no Muslim website would say it. Somewhere in mid-Ramadan, I stopped fasting.
The night when I came to my decision, I begged Allah for forgiveness and mercy. I wasn’t strong enough for this, I couldn’t go on anymore.
He must have heard, because gradually, the self-harm urges lessened.